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Reduce Irritation with Basic Information

by Les Stobbe, Literary Agent

As literary agent I find an all-too-often disregard of the basics when writers send me a proposal. In addition, I get really upset clients when, in writing cover copy, publisher’s copy editors misrepresent what is in their book. Finally, clients get really frustrated when their book’s front cover is way off base on either background or characters depicted. So is there anything a writer can do?

Yes, indeed! Here are three simple steps a writer can take to reduce high blood pressure and simplify the work of agents, editors, copy editors, and cover designers.

1. Take the time to present yourself properly
I receive many proposals from writers revealing they have not checked my submission guidelines or those of publishers. On a fiction submission I consistently look first at the word count. When I recognize it is not within 5,000 words of what that genre’s publisher wants, I quickly declare it not ready for prime time. Then I look at the contact information. Is the author’s name, address, e-mail address and phone number on the title page of the proposal-all too many times I have to toss a proposal that arrives by mail because there is no e-mail address and no SASE. When it arrives digitally, I check if there’s title and author name in the Header, only to discover that few writers know how to use the header and footer function in Word.

More and more editors are looking first at the author’s platform, as revealed in the author credentials section and the marketing section. I find a lot of authors listing a variety of steps they anticipate doing after their book is published. I call that blue-skying-there is nothing to prove they will really do it. I need what the author is doing now to build a platform.

2. In fiction, make lists
Cover designers make the most egregious mistakes when they do not have easily accessible information on the protagonists, antagonists, or the setting. As novel writer you should consider yourself responsible for providing reliable, easily accessible information. As soon as you have your protagonists clearly in mind, keep a notepad on hand to enter basic information like size, color of hair and of the eyes, any physical abnormalities, the kind of hat the male might wear, the basic color schemes of women’s clothing. Write down all special aspects of the key settings in which the action takes place, if unusual transportation is used, what kind of train, car, plane is involved. You can use this information for accurate portrayal of the protagonists throughout the book but also include it with the submission of the manuscript to the acquiring editor.

3. Read aloud what you have written
Amazingly many proposals and sample chapters contain missing words, same-sounding words with different meanings, punctuation errors, that most likely could be caught when the material is read aloud. And look out for the one word that bedevils even experienced writers, “foreword,” usually misspelled as “forward.” Even a quick look should confirm there’s no “word” in it.


A Literary Agent for 19 years, Les has been editorial director, book club vice-president, CE Journal editor, curriculum managing editor, and president of a book publishing house. He has written curriculum, journalism lessons, 14 books and hundreds of magazine articles. He specializes in helping first book authors. His website is at www.stobbeliterary.com

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3 Responses to Reduce Irritation with Basic Information

  1. Ruthanne Pomelee Seitz says:

    Great advice. I’ve got my book cover list in my head, but will put it down on paper with all the details.
    I just finished judging a contest, and I don’t know how many times I told the writer, “Read it out loud.” Seems simple – maybe too simple for writers.

  2. Helping the cover artist out is one of the best reasons for an author to use Pinterest, IMO. I use it extensively to pin images of the scenery in my novels and what the characters look like. I know from friends in Barbour novella collecttions that their Pinterest boards have come in very handy when it came time to design the covers.

  3. Great post, Les. I’ve been at this such a short time compared to you, but I’ve already seen many proposals that show that the writers are not ready.

    Besides that, this is helpful to me so I can be sure I’m representing others well when I send proposals out. I confess. I’m guilty of leaving words out of sentences. I think faster than I type and I am forever skipping words. My brain helpfully fills them in for me when I proofread. :)

    So thanks for the reminders!